With the passing of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, I had intended to quietly offer my own prayers for his soul, refraining from any critical observation about his record – as a politician, public official, or self-appointed Catholic theologian.
But subsequent tributes filled with a convenient revision of that record – particularly regarding his widely disparate moral and political pronouncements on abortion and the death penalty, two issues he regularly and publicly identified with his Catholic faith — really beg a response.
Begin with abortion. Early in his fledgling political career — upon New York’s legalization of abortion in 1970, followed by Roe v. Wade in 1973 – Mario Cuomo was publicly pro-life. This was a time, remember, when pro-life Democrats were not so rare as they are today – even here in New York, where some of our supporters in Congress and the state legislature were Democrats, and where the leading crusader for abortion was the powerhouse Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller. Back in 1973, even Democratic icon Sen. Ted Kennedy deplored, in writing, the rush to legalize abortion-on-demand.
But as Mario Cuomo’s political career progressed – or actually, as it stalled, with his loss to Ed Koch in the 1977 New York City mayoral election — the Democratic Party, especially in New York and the northeast, was rapidly shifting into the absolutist pro-abortion mode that would come to characterize it to this day.
And so – whether by coincidence or design – did Mario Cuomo’s position shift accordingly, culminating in his famous Notre Dame speech of 1984, in which he expounded on what he proclaimed to be the two radically distinct — and quite separate — obligations of the Catholic politician in a pluralistic democracy. Privately, the governor explained, Catholics may have an obligation to follow their Church’s teaching that abortion is “sinful.” Publicly, however, Catholics in government have no right to impose their Church’s teaching on the broader culture – regardless of whether or not abortion involves the taking of an innocent human life. At Notre Dame, Cuomo ignored all of the mounting – and today indisputable — medical and scientific evidence affirming that every abortion kills a living, growing, distinct human being; thus reducing that demonstrable fact to a narrowly sectarian religious teaching, and thereby relegating the Church’s pro-life social teaching to the realm of private morality – a “sin” for the believing Catholic, similar to missing Mass on Sunday, with no wider ramifications for others in a pluralistic society, and certainly no justification for Catholics to “impose” this “belief” – regardless of the science – on others through law.
Contrast this with the governor’s stand against the death penalty – which he routinely attributed to his Catholic faith, the Church having in recent times called for an end to reliance on capital punishment as long as “bloodless means” would suffice to protect society from those convicted of murdering another human being. Polls at the time showed a clear majority of Americans – and New Yorkers – supporting the death penalty in at least some instances. In that case, however, Cuomo had absolutely no qualms about “imposing” what he openly acknowledged were his faith-based beliefs on a pluralistic society, the majority of whom felt differently. Indeed, shortly after his death, one local newspaper quoted an associate recalling – approvingly – the governor’s reaction when advisers were urging him to allow at least some exceptions to his anti-death penalty stance, for example, for those convicted of murdering police officers. He couldn’t soften his stance, the governor reportedly responded, because “a life is a life.” Except, apparently, when it’s an innocent unborn child’s life.
So what was the difference, in Cuomoworld, between being able to impose one’s Catholic beliefs on others through law, in order to stop the death penalty, and not being permitted to do so to protect unborn children from abortion?
In a word, politics.
On abortion, this is pretty self-evident. As his party became ever more absolutist in its advocacy of unrestricted abortion, pro-life Democrats were threatened with exclusion from their own party. Witness our long-time Nassau County District Attorney (and later my boss) Denis Dillon, driven from the Democratic Party for his pro-life stand; or Govs. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania and Joan Finney of Kansas, both nationally prominent Democrats frozen out of any role at Bill Clinton’s 1992 Democratic National Convention because of their pro-life position.
Not for Mario Cuomo such a principled pro-life stand. Instead, he adopted what really was nothing more than the standard “personally opposed, but …” mantra of other pro-abortion Catholic politicians. But of course, being Mario Cuomo, he had to dress it up in his unique brand of political and theological sophistry. Mounting Notre Dame’s hallowed ivory towers to lecture us all from on high, he endeavored to disabuse his Church’s leaders and, especially, those (ugh) “right-to-lifers” of their simplistic notion that, after all, “a life is a life.”
On the death penalty, however, Mario Cuomo has long been credited – even by some of his critics – with a strong moral stance in favor of a politically unpopular position.
I respectfully demur.
Consider the full context of his first race for governor.
Before running in the general election, Cuomo had to win a Democratic primary against his old nemesis, Ed Koch. Recall that Koch, both in his record as mayor and as a gubernatorial candidate, had staked out a strong position as a moderate centrist – a fiscally conservative, “law-and-order” Democrat who was an outspoken supporter of capital punishment. Recall also that then as now, Democratic primaries were dominated by the more liberal wing of the party – as Republican primaries were and are by that party’s more conservative wing. Mario Cuomo, ever the shrewd politician, surely knew that his best chance for victory in the primary was to get to Ed Koch’s left on some hot button issues. Opposition to the death penalty was tailor-made for that strategy, and Cuomo rode it to victory in the primary. Having done so, of course, he had no choice but to continue to own that position through the general election campaign, lest he alienate his base and be seen as cynical and insincere by the general electorate.
This is not to say that Mario Cuomo did not really believe in his opposition to capital punishment. It is simply to point out that it was not, as is so constantly claimed, from beginning to end a political liability for him – and thereby an unalloyed profile in political courage. It was a vital advantage for him in his fight for the Democratic nomination – without which, of course, he could never have been elected.
A true manifestation of political courage – and an emulation of St. Thomas More, whom Mario Cuomo often invoked as a model — would have been to stand for the Democratic nomination as a pro-life candidate; even if that meant risking and perhaps losing the public office he so coveted.
May he rest in peace.